Coastal Migration to the Rust Belt and Vice Versa — By the Numbers
This post was written by Rob Pitingolo and originally appeared on his awesome blog Extraordinary Observations.
Last weekend Angie Schmitt pointed me to an article by Douglas Trattner in Fresh Water Cleveland. The author suggests Rust Belt cities, left for dead, are suddenly booming again. Angie was suspicious of some of the claims and I offered to check it out. Let’s start with the article…
Daily, it seems, another cultural sociologist is writing about the current trend of reverse migration – young creatives fleeing the Coasts in droves in favor of “decaying” industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These cities, you see, are appealing because of the decay. That and ironic pleasures like bowling, pierogies, and polka.
Of course, there is enough truth and fiction in that charming narrative to choke a thesis on contemporary demographics. The truth is, young people are moving back to cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh — and at rates that outpace those of posh suburban zip codes. Offering the promise of a better (cheaper) quality of life — and yes, the ironic pleasures of bowling, pierogies, and polka — Rust Belt cities truly have become “chic.”
The pivotal point in the narrative may have occurred on May 12, 2012. That’s when Salon published the article “Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback.” The sub-hed was “Gritty Rust Belt cities, once left for dead, are on the rise — thanks to young people priced out of cooler locales.”
The quote above conflates two distinct ideas. First, that young people have found new love for Rust Belt cities because the “cooler locales” in coastal metros have gotten so expensive that young people can’t afford them anymore. Second, that when these people live in rust belt cities, they opt for the urban core rather than the “posh” suburbs.
I think the second point has some merit, and it’s been documented that even in central Cleveland neighborhoods that are losing population, the number of young people in those neighborhoods is growing (the key to remember is that these neighborhoods are still shrinking, they’re just shifting appeal to a younger crowd). Nevertheless, the first point is open to interpretation, and whether you think it’s true or not depends how you define “droves” of people.
To figure out the answer to this question requires more than just anecdotes about people who moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland or San Francisco to Detroit. I dug into ACS data from 2008-2010 to answer a few key questions for the three cities mentioned in the article above:
- How many moved from the Rust Belt metro to a coastal metro?
- How many moved from a coastal metro to the Rust Belt metro?
- How do the two numbers compare?
Let’s start with Cleveland. Between 2008 and 2010, more people left for the coasts each year on average than came, and the results are statistically significant (the thin bars on these charts represent the calculated 95% confidence interval). However, there’s no statistically significant difference between the number of young people and the number of degree holders who are in-movers and out-movers. Cleveland had the fewest number of migrants in either direction of the three Rust Belt metros in question.
Detroit is a different story. In all three categories there are more out-movers than in-movers. Consistent with most accounts of depopulation, more people are decamping from Detroit for the coasts than vice-versa.
Pittsburgh is an interesting case because more people arrived from the coasts than left for them. However, when you filter it down by young people and degree holders, there’s no significant difference. What’s interesting about Pittsburgh is that what appears to be driving the first set of columns is that there are more kids (and presumably thus families) moving to the metro area than in Cleveland or Detroit.
In the end, these graphics show something interesting; but I don’t think they’re consistent with the bold claims made in the Freshwater article. You could argue that the data is old, and that the shift didn’t start until 2011. Maybe that’s true, but we’ll have to wait to find out.
You could argue that Cleveland and Pittsburgh are actually in great shape if the number of young people and degree holders that are leaving are being replaced at essentially a 1-to-1 ratio. I really have no dog in this fight, I just want to numbers to back up the rhetoric. Anecdotal evidence only goes so far.
When thinking about in and out migration, I think it’s important to be cautious of the availability heuristic. When someone leaves a metro area, they usually do it quietly. They pack up, leave, and then people in that area rarely hear from them again. But when someone moves from another metro area, you hear about it all the time, because there are plenty of opportunities to hear about it. I suspect that people remember many more cases of people moving to their city than they remember cases of people leaving.